Elders dial for help

It was a cold winter morning in the coastal town of Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, when the HelpAge’s Helpline started ringing. The first call was from Krishnasamy School and the second from a Dinamalar press reporter. Both the SOS calls were about an elderly man lying in a dustbin for a week and looking scruffy and disoriented.

Immediately the Helpline executive rushed to the spot, picked up the man and took him to the Cuddalore GH Palliative Care Park where he was given first-aid, then shaved and bathed and provided with new clothes. The HelpAge volunteers assisted in transporting him to a hospital and sought police help for tracing his antecedents. The volunteers, too, got on to their network to search for his family.

After 15 days of medical care and a lot of emotional support, the elderly man finally disclosed that his name was Sivakumar and he owns a rice mill in Madurai. The 56-year-old said he was clueless as to how he reached Cuddalore and why he was in a garbage dump. The Helpline executive has stayed in touch to ensure that Sivakumar was well settled at home.

There are hundreds of cases of old people being abandoned, getting lost due to dementia or running away from their own homes in distress. With India’s population ageing and physical and mental abuse of the elderly on the increase, HelpAge India had set up its first Helpline (1253) for the elderly in Chennai within the police headquarters in 2003. It was followed by a Helpline in the office of the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation.

In 2007 and 2008, the Helpline facility was further expanded to 21 State capitals. However, when the expansion of the Helplines took place, the Department of Telecommunication said that four-digit numbers were no longer available; so the Helpline number is now 1800-180-1253. Prem Poddar, who is in charge of the Helpline operation in HelpAge, says while the southern Helplines get more calls for rescue and rehabilitation, in north India the calls are more for information on old age schemes and how to access them. More recently, the Helpline services are enabling seniors to access various facilities like holiday tours and computer literacy classes. There is also a help desk that facilitates the elderly with walkers, wheel chairs and other needs.

On an average, each Helpline gets 100 to 150 calls in a month. However, the busiest Helpline is in Hyderabad which receives over 500 calls every month and minimum calls are received by the Helpline in Bhopal. The enhanced calls received at the Hyderabad Helpline are because the Senior Citizens Association in the State is strong and active, conducting regular meetings on various topics of interest to the elders and communities that care for them.

A common distress call received by Helplines across the country is to rescue abandoned elderly. In Delhi, Balli (65), a Tamil-speaking abandoned elderly, worked in homes and supported herself till she met with a road accident and found it difficult to work. An NGO working for women rang up the Helpline; its senior executive met Balli and offered medical help and shelter in an old-age home, but the woman who spoke only Tamil, initially refused help. However, with the combined support of the Helpline staff, the local police and a Tamil-speaking volunteer, she was persuaded to move into the Guru Vishram Vridh Ashram and got her leg injury treated. The story of Stella, a 69-year-old retired and unmarried school teacher from Cuddalore is quite different. She went to stay with her brother in Chidambaram town, who in turn, requested her to go back and stay with his son who was studying in junior college in Cuddalore. She agreed but soon found the nephew would neither listen to her nor study. When she brought this to her brother’s notice, it created a rift between them. Then one day, the nephew beat her up and she called up the Elders Helpline — seeking assistance for a safe shelter. With the support of the police, the brother was called for counselling by the Helpline. He admitted his mistake and took Stella to his house. Harassment, abuse and abandoning of the elderly are often the culmination of property disputes.

In such cases, HelpAge only gives legal advice or puts them in touch with lawyers who are empanelled for free service to seniors. In all its communication with seniors, HelpAge advises them to write their wills.